Figures from two periods: A comparison

I love to compare paintings, especially those that belong to different eras. This helps me understand how the world has changed, which in turn, has changed art. Such a comparison clearly proves that art is a reflection of the world in more ways than one.

Théophile Hamel, Madame Charles-Hilaire Têtu, née Elizabeth O’Brien, and Her Son Eugène, 1841

Take Théophile Hamel’s Madame Charles-Hilaire Têtu, née Elizabeth O’Brien, and Her Son Eugène for instance. While this painting, created in 1841, is a conventional figure portrait, what makes it special is the mother and son relationship that it portrays. The brush strokes of such works were so accurate that every form, for instance, threads of hair, were distinctly visible. Consequently, they present an accuracy of form that is almost photographic. Hamel was known for this nature of portrait, with form so accurate that it resembles photographs. When he was at his peak, photography was not a common phenomenon. In fact, his disciples, who carried forward this style after his death, ended up competing with photographs after the latter became popular, and obviously lost the battle.

By the late nineteenth century, photographers had not only turned more popular when it came to portrait photography, but they were also surprisingly experimental. Their subjects were often not conscious of themselves, as in the case of this work below, by the amazing Robert Demachy. What is noticeable here is how well the subject has adjusted herself within the frame, yet she is not appearing conscious. She is immersed in her own world. Her stare and posture articulately prove that.

Robert Demachy, Woman in a Boater Hat, 1899

It was clear that 20th-century painters had to reinvent themselves if they had to preserve the uniqueness of their medium. They started becoming more innovative in the manner in which they presented their subjects. Also, their themes became more personal, complex and subtle. Magic realist Alex Colville’s Family and Rainstorm is a work that depicts acceptance. The family accepts that it has to leave the beach because of the rainstorm observed in the background. So they are leaving and the mother, as in the previous painting, displays affection for her children by holding the door for them to get in the car.

Alex Colville. Family and Rainstorm. 1955

As portrait painting gradually became more experimental, new trends emerged in painting, like magic realism. Magic realists depict reality with such rich shades that the effect is mystifying and rather unreal. Colville is an iconic magic realist because his focus is highly upon form. His brushstrokes ensured that the characters appear as much alive as possible. His works appear almost like photographs, especially journalistic photographs, which capture people as they are engaged in certain actions. Colville’s characters are always performing one action or the other. But the richness of his colors gives an unreal mysterious feeling to each of his works. Plus, characteristically, his works are devoid of shadows.

The gesture, gaze, and form of action are drastically different in the two paintings considered here. The first work is a conscious portrait, while the second is an unconscious glimpse of everyday life. The differences prove how much art had changed between 1841 and 1955, reflecting the drastic advancements the world had achieved in that period.

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